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“I get into the emotional side of it when somebody gets upset or when a player gets real physical or plays really hard,” Junior said. “That’s what I like to see, and I think our fans like to see that out of the drivers. We’re inside those cars most of the time. We’re limited in what you can see and what we can do. But when somebody gets outside the car and does something like Tony did, the fans really connect to that emotion.”

The three-time NASCAR champion lost his infamous temper after a bump from Kenseth caused him to wreck as they were racing for the lead at Bristol. Before making his mandatory trip to the care center, Stewart waited on the track for Kenseth to pass by on pit road, and he used both hands to heave his helmet directly at the front grill of Kenseth’s car.

A few days later, Stewart was able to joke about the whole affair. He said he might take some of his father’s old helmets into his yard to work on his technique, and added that he would only run over Kenseth “if I need to.”

During the first day of practice at Atlanta, the two adversaries chatted amiably in the garage.

Apparently, all is good.

Until the next time.

“The helmet toss was cool,” Kenseth said. “I just wish he had not tossed it at me. That means he was upset with me.”

Heading into Atlanta, Kenseth is among four drivers who have clinched their spot in the 10-race playoff, joined by Johnson, Earnhardt and Greg Biffle. Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski are poised to get in as soon as Sunday night.

But Edwards, who heartbreakingly lost the championship to Stewart a year ago in the final race on a tiebreaker, likely needs to win in Atlanta or next week at Richmond to clinch a wild-card spot. Busch is in, for now, but he could get knocked out if another of the contenders wins. Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, also is in danger of missing the Chase.

“We want it bad,” Gordon said.

In other words, there’s plenty of potential for another angry confrontation.

“Everybody wants to see good racing,” Kenseth said. “But whether they’ll admit it or not, they like to see the rest of it, too _ when guys go over the edge. That’s been part of the sport for a lot of years. “

And many years to come.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963